A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

What does "wau" mean in place names like Milwaukee, Waukegan, and Waupaca?

September 7, 1973

Dear Cecil:

Can you tell me the derivation and meaning of the syllable wau, as found in midwestern place names such as Milwaukee, Waukegan, Waupaca, etc.?

Cecil replies:

Not really. The Algonquin Indian languages that gave names to these and many other places in the midwest were oral, like all North American Indian languages. Place names like Milwaukee and Waukegan weren't written down by Indians but by white dudes who had no familiarity with the subtleties of the Indian tongue (some of them had a pretty shaky grip on their own languages, for that matter). The spellings have changed God knows how many times--Milwaukee, for example, first appears as "Melleoiki," which may or may not have meant "good land" in Chippewa.

Thus we have the wau syllable popping up in a slew of names that seem to have nothing in common: Waubonsee, from the name of a Potawatomi chief who attacked his enemies at dawn (wapin, "daybreak"); Waukegan, from waukeegance, a translation into Indian of the original name, "Little Fort" (the -ce, which meant "little," was dropped out of civic pride); Waupaca, where wau seems to come from waub, the Potawatomi word for "white" (the same goes for Waupecan Creek, "white sand bottom"); Waukesha, "little fox"; Wausau, from wassa, "far away place"; and so on ad infinitum (Latin, "and so it goes").

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